“Both Jews and Palestinians yearn for genuine and lasting peace. Palestinians seek peace with justice, while Israeli Jews want peace with security. The common denominator is peace, yet peace is far off. Because of the demands of ‘strict’ justice on one hand and those of security on the other, peace has become a victim. The cry is constantly for peace but there is no peace.”
These are the words of Naim Stifan Ateek in his 1989 book, Justice, And Only Justice. I met Naim, a Palestinian and an Anglican priest, in 1991, during my third trip to Israel/Palestine. He made a presentation to our class at St. George’s College and his story gave me some insight into the Palestinian-Jewish struggles. Prior to that my limited knowledge of the conflict was drawn from what I saw and heard on previous trips, and what was reported by American news sources.
My first journey there was in the early 1980s when I and 15 others were hosted by the Phoenix Arizona Jewish Community. We met with Holocaust survivors, Israeli political and military officials, and Jewish religious leaders. Our days were divided into two parts: half Christian and Jewish holy sites and history, and half political propaganda. The second trip was a traditional Christian pilgrimage and we stayed clear of the political tension surrounding us.
The St. George’s Experience
The St. George’s experience, however, combined presentations from Jews and Palestinians, with journeys through the places that were prominent in Jesus’s life and ministry. We had frank discussions about the political struggles surging through the land, but it was Naim’s conversation that opened me to the Palestinian side of the equation.
Naim was reared a Christian in the Palestinian town of Beisan, where his father built a family home in the 1920s. On May 12, 1948, the 11-year-old Naim watched as Israeli troops occupied the town and searched every house looking for weapons. After finding none, Naim wrote, “the military governor sent for the leading men of the town; at military headquarters, he informed them quite simply and coldly that Beisan must be evacuated by all inhabitants.” When Mr. Ateek pleaded with the governor, he was told “If you do not leave we will have to kill you.”
The citizens of the town were given two hours to collect whatever belongings they could carry. Then, Beisan’s Muslims were transported to the border with Transjordan (now Jordan) and the Christians to the outskirts of Nazareth. As Naim wrote, “within a few hours, our family had become refugees, driven out of Beisan forever.” I can’t imagine the impact such an event would have on the developing mind of a child, and I understood how a generation of young Palestinians would dedicate themselves to fighting against this kind of sudden, unjust and unilateral cruelty.
A Land Revered as Holy
My different journeys to a land revered as holy by three religions, combined with my subsequent four trips to Jerusalem and the Judean Desert, gave me an opportunity to visit the homes of Palestinian families in Bethlehem and Nazareth; have dinner with the family of a Rabbi in Tel Aviv; talk with residents of three kibbutzim; hear from military officers on the Golan Heights; walk with an Israeli student up a Judean desert mountain to the ancient Masada fortress, and have coffee-shop conversations with residents of East Jerusalem.
I spent hours talking with Palestinian shop keepers, clergy, bus drivers, and scholars—often over tea and cakes. I’ve prayed at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, and felt the presence of generations of prayers as I stood barefoot in Al Aqsa Mosque. I offered prayers of peace in historic synagogues and the Church of the Resurrection. But all my trips, experiences and relationships did not make me an expert. I will probably never understand all of the nuances and dynamics and history of the Jewish-Palestinian conflicts. At best, I’ve gained a small bit of insight into the personal trauma and human issues on both sides.
Like most Americans I’ve never ushered my children to safety as bombs or rockets rained down. I’ve never lived in a bombed-out community, one in which fresh water and electricity is scarce, the sewage system is destroyed and the streets are flowing with waste water. I’ve never been evicted from my home and town, herded onto a bus and dropped off with my family to carry our limited belongings in search of a new place to live. There is only one thing I know for certain: Violence and killing is not the way to either security or peace.
Is Peace Possible?
As Naim wrote in the concluding chapter of his book, “I have mixed feelings of hope.. because I am convinced that peace is possible. Peace is knocking at our door, but the door has not been opened. The door of peace is reached only through the door of justice. Once that door opens, peace lies inside. Where peace is, a meal is prepared. It is the feast of reconciliation ready to be celebrated…The hope is not imaginary. It is real. It is accessible. It is within reach. It requires courage…”
And, I add, it requires the rest of the world’s nations to stop treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like a domestic political/partisan issue. Selah.